The Saudis May Want The Bomb And The White House Might End Up Helping Them Get It

The Trump Administration is pushing to transfer nuclear technology to Saudi Arabia amid corruption allegations and fears of an arms race.

byJoseph Trevithick|
Saudi Arabia photo


Whistleblowers have warned Congress that current and former members of President Donald Trump’s Administration, including some with serious conflicts of interest, may have tried to rush the transfer of sensitive nuclear technology to Saudi Arabia in ways that may violate U.S. law. There are now concerns that those efforts may still be ongoing, despite existing concerns that the Saudis, fearful of Iran’s nuclear ambitions, may be seeking a pathway to acquire their own nuclear weapons. Even more worrisome, Riyadh appears to be working on developing indigenous ballistic missile capabilities that could eventually carry these warheads already.

On Feb. 19, 2019, Representative Elijah Cummings, a Maryland Democrat and present Chairman of the House Committee on Oversight and Reform, announced the beginning of investigations into the White House and other federal agencies regarding the Trump Administrations efforts to cut a nuclear deal with Saudi Arabia based on new information that multiple individuals had submitted to his office. The Oversight and Reform Committee also released an initial report on the allegations and copies of the documents it was based on.

“Multiple whistleblowers came forward to warn about efforts inside the White House to rush the transfer of highly sensitive U.S. nuclear technology to Saudi Arabia in potential violation of the Atomic Energy Act and without review by Congress as required by law – efforts that may be ongoing to this day,” the executive summary of the report noted. “The whistleblowers who came forward have expressed significant concerns about the potential procedural and legal violations connected with rushing through a plan to transfer nuclear technology to Saudi Arabia.”

“They have warned of conflicts of interest among top White House advisers that could implicate federal criminal statutes,” it continued. “They have also warned about a working environment inside the White House marked by chaos, dysfunction, and backbiting.”

Representative Elijah Cummings speaks to reporters in January 2019., AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite, File

In 2010, Saudi Arabia established the King Abdullah City for Atomic and Renewable Energy to oversee the country’s planned civilian nuclear power program, as well as other alternative energy sources. The Saudis have since outlined plans for building two nuclear power plants by 2020 and having 16 in total by 2030. The publicly stated goal is to reduce domestic oil consumption to maximize oil exports and make the country less dependent on fossil fuels. The United Arab Emirates (UAE), a major Saudi partner in the region, is also pursuing nuclear power for many of the same reasons. 

The Kingdom is hoping to finalize deals to build the first of those power plants by the end of 2019. The contracts will surely be lucrative and pave the way for additional work. Companies from the United States, as well as China, Russia, France, and South Korea are all on the short list now to bid on the projects.

An undated picture of the Barakah nuclear power plant in the United Arab Emirates under construction. This is the first nuclear power plant in any country with the Gulf Cooperation Council bloc, which also includes Saudi Arabia. South Korea's Korea Electric Power Corporation is in charge of the project., Arun Girija/Emirates Nuclear Energy Corporation/WAM via AP

Conflicts of Interest

The Saudi nuclear power program has also created an opening for corruption and graft in the United States, according to the whistleblowers who contacted Cummings’ committee. A key issue is that Trump’s former National Security Advisor Michael Flynn was an advisor to a company called IronBridge Group, Inc., between June and December 2016. During this time, he was also a member of Trump’s presidential campaign and subsequent transition team.

IronBridge is a wholly owned subsidiary of a consortium called IP3 International, which appears to solely exist to represent a group of American firms in bidding on the Saudi nuclear projects. After The Washington Post first reported this link in 2017, IronBridge denied Flynn ever had an official role in the company and said he never received any monetary compensation from them.

The whistleblowers now say that Flynn, a former U.S. Army Lieutenant General who once ran the Defense Intelligence Agency, failed to disclose on a security clearance renewal form that he had traveled to Saudi Arabia on behalf of IP3’s predecessor company in June 2015. He also did not disclose that this firm had sponsored a second trip in October of that year.

Former National Security Advisor Michael Flynn arrives at federal court in Washington, D.C., in December 2018., AP Photo/Carolyn Kaster

Regardless of Flynn’s technical relationship with IP3 and its predecessors, in the week after Trump took office, Derek Harvey, the Senior Director for Middle East and North African Affairs within the National Security Council, told other officials that the Administration would endorse IP3’s proposal for nuclear cooperation with Saudi Arabia, dubbing it the “Middle East Marshall Plan,” according to the Oversight and Reform Committee report. This decision had apparently originated with Flynn personally.

“Both career and political staff inside the White House reportedly agreed that Mr. Harvey’s directive could violate the law,” according to the House Committee report. “One senior political official stated that the proposal was ‘not a business plan,’ but rather ‘a scheme for these generals to make some money.’ That official stated: ‘Okay, you know we cannot do this.’”

More ties to the Kingdom

Beyond Flynn, there were other potential conflicts of interest, as well. Thomas Barrack, a personal friend of Trump’s who was also Chairman of his Inaugural Committee, as well as Trump’s son-in-law Jared Kushner, now a White House advisor with a significant portfolio, were also reportedly involved in the Middle East Marshall Plan.

In 2017, Barrack had considered purchasing a stake in Westinghouse Electric, a manufacturer of, among other things, nuclear reactors, which had filed for bankruptcy, according to the Congressional report. In 2018, Westinghouse’s parent company, Japanese conglomerate Toshiba, sold it to Brookfield Business Partners, a subsidiary of Brookfield Asset Management. Brookfield took a 100 percent leasehold interest stake in Jared Kushner’s troubled 666 Fifth Avenue property venture in New York City that same year.

Thomas Barrack waves from a car during President Trump's inauguration day parade in January 2017., Vladimir Astapkovich/Sputnik via AP

The Oversight and Reform Committee's report also re-raised general concerns about Kushner's personal visit with now-Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, also known as MbS, during President Trump's trip to Saudi Arabia in 2017. Though not specifically about nuclear projects, MbS reportedly bragged that Trump's son-in-law was "in his pocket" afterward, though the Saudi royal denied this later.

Both Barrack and Kushner have substantial financial ties to Saudi Arabia, raising further questions about conflicts of interest. Barrack was responsible for Trump’s hiring of Paul Manafort as campaign manager, as well, and suggested that Manafort could meet with the Saudis over the nuclear proposal.

The U.S. government has since convicted Flynn of lying to the Federal Bureau of Investigation over interactions with Russian officials. Paul Manafort has also pled guilty to charges of conspiracy to defraud the United States and witness tampering. He continues to find himself in legal trouble over accusations that he has failed to abide by the terms of his plea deal by continuing to lie to federal officials.

Paul Manafort leaves the federal courthouse in Washington, D.C. in April 2018., AP Photo/Andrew Harnik

In addition, the whistleblowers further allege that they informed Harvey, the National Security Council official, that any nuclear deal with Saudi Arabia would have to abide by the terms of the Atomic Energy Act, specifically Section 123 of that law, which would require safeguards to prevent proliferation of nuclear technology and prevent the development of nuclear weapons. A so-called “123 Agreement” with the Saudis would, for instance, have to require clauses banning enriching uranium above the level necessary for power generation and the production of plutonium.

Harvey reportedly brushed aside these concerns and talked about the Middle East Marshall Plan as if it was already a done deal. If the White House wanted to transfer nuclear technology to the Saudis, it would not technically require approval Congress, but the Senate could look to block the deal from going ahead.

Legislators might be especially inclined to do this if it becomes apparent that the Trump Administration sought to go ahead with the plan without abiding by the terms of the Atomic Energy Act. On Feb. 16, 2019, U.S. Deputy Energy Secretary Dan Brouillette did deny that there was any intent to circumvent Section 123 in order to speed up nuclear cooperation with the Saudis.

“We won't allow them to bypass 123 if they want to have civilian nuclear power that includes U.S. nuclear technologies,” he said in an interview with CNBC on the sidelines of the Munich Security Conference. “As you know this technology has a dual use and in the wrong hands it becomes a dangerous, dangerous world.”

This followed a move by a bipartisan group of Senators on Feb. 12, 2019, to introduce a resolution that would legally require the Trump Administration to implement a 123 Agreement with the Saudis as part of any nuclear deal. That same day, Trump and other officials met with representatives from various U.S. energy companies, including IP3, to discuss the approval process for the sale of nuclear reactors abroad to countries such as Saudi Arabia.

From left to right, Centrus Energy Corporation President and CEO Daniel  Poneman, Exelon Corporation President and CEO Chris Crane, and NuScale Power Chairman and CEO John L. Hopkins, speak to reporters after meeting with President Trump and other officials to discuss nuclear power issues on Feb. 12, 2019., AP Photo/Manuel Balce Ceneta

A nuclear arms race

The new allegations in the Oversight and Reform Committee report are unlikely to help assuage concerns in Congress that the Trump Administration is looking to push ahead with a nuclear deal with Saudi Arabia without taking the necessary precautions. On top of that, U.S.-Saudi relations are already at an all-time low after the brutal murder of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi by government security forces at the country’s consulate in Istanbul, Turkey, and the Kingdom’s subsequent attempts to cover that up, in 2018.

Proponents of a deal contend that if the United States doesn’t aid the Saudis in their nuclear ambitions, someone else, such as the Chinese or the Russians, will. Those countries may be far less scrupulous in their efforts to ensure Saudi Arabia doesn’t utilize the technology to develop nuclear weapons.

There is a significant and growing fear that the Saudis could feel steadily more compelled to acquire nuclear weapons regardless in order to counter their main regional opponent, Iran. It remains the public opinion of the U.S. Intelligence Community that Iran is not actively building nuclear weapons, but that the country does retain the knowledge base to do so if it decides to. At the same time, the Iranians do have a very active and extensive

ballistic missile program, as well as a tangential space launch vehicle program, both of which could support the development of a delivery system for nuclear weapons.

The Saudis, like the Iranians, insist that their nuclear program is for peaceful purposes only. However, the Kingdom’s officials are on record saying that they will pursue nuclear weapons if the regime in Tehran does.

“Saudi Arabia does not want to acquire any nuclear bomb,” Saudi Arabia's MbS said in an interview in March 2018. “But without a doubt, if Iran developed a nuclear bomb, we will follow suit as soon as possible."

There are other indications that the Saudis may be quietly laying the groundwork for a nuclear weapons program, if they haven’t already, too. Saudi Arabia reportedly acted as a major financier for Pakistan’s nuclear weapon program, dating all the way back to the 1970s, with the belief that this gave them access to, at least, technical information about those developments. 

In recent years, Saudi Arabia and Iran have competed for growing influence in Pakistan, but ties between Riyadh and Islamabad remain strong. Just on Feb. 18, 2019, MbS signed some $20 billion worth of memorandums of understanding for future cooperation with Pakistan during a trip to the country.

Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan, at left, personally drives Saudi Arabia's Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman to his accommodations after the Saudi royal arrived for his state visit on Feb. 17, 2019., Pakistan Press Information Department

Saudi ballistic missiles

In 1987, Saudi Arabia also purchased hundreds of DF-3 medium-range ballistic missiles (MRBM) from China. China developed these weapons to carry nuclear warheads and their limited accuracy has long called into question how the Saudis could ever expect to employ them effectively with conventional payloads outside of massive barrages against broad area targets.

The Royal Saudi Strategic Missile Force has never publicly tested one of these weapons and only showed them off to the public for the first time in 2014. In 2014, Newsweek reported that the Saudis had purchased newer and more capable DF-21 MRBMs from China six years earlier, but with the blessing of the U.S. government on the understanding that these weapons would be somehow rendered incapable of carrying nuclear weapons. This remains unconfirmed.

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Most recently, in January 2019, The Washington Post, citing analysis of satellite imagery by experts at the Middlebury Institute of International Studies at Monterey, reported that there was a high likelihood that the Saudis had or were in the process of building a ballistic missile factory. This apparent facility was situated within the Strategic Missile Force base at Al Watah in central Saudi Arabia.

This development already raises concerns that the Saudis might be engaged in an arms race with Iran that could further push both parties to consider building stockpiles of nuclear weapons, which could be dangerously destabilizing across the Middle East. The two countries are already engaged in a number of proxy conflicts, most notably in and around Yemen, and have exchanged increasingly charged rhetoric in recent years.

If nothing else, it shows that Saudi Arabia is working toward a domestic ballistic missile production capacity, if it doesn't have one already. This would allow officials in Riyadh to avoid having to engage in the same sorts of secretive methods they've used in the past to acquire this class of weapon and would give them more flexibility to rapidly expand their missile force.

Even conventionally armed ballistic missiles would offer the Saudis a valuable capability boost, including as a deterrent, especially in the face of Iran's growing missile arsenal. Iran has already demonstrated its own ability and willingness to use ballistic missiles in the conventional role with strikes in Syria and has assisted Houthi rebels in the development of their own ballistic missile force. The latter group has used those weapons to attack Saudi Arabia directly.

Increasingly accurate ballistic missiles with conventional warheads would give the Saudis a viable first rapid strike capability, as well. The experience from building these domestic weapons, combined with Saudi Arabia's own familiarity with Chinese designs, would also help support the development of nuclear-capable missiles, or at least push the country closer to a breakout capability in this regard. The experts at the Middlebury Institute suggested that China or Pakistan could be assisting the Saudi missile program at Al Watah, too.

An Iranian Khorramshahr MRBM, one of the country's most advanced ballistic missiles., AP Photo/Ebrahim Norooz

Persisting concerns

All of this taken together raises additional concerns about whether it is prudent for the United States to assist the Saudis in the development of nuclear capabilities of any kind that could potentially lead to nuclear weapons. American lawmakers from both parties are increasingly worried about the lack of transparency from the Trump Administration about the present state of negotiations with the Kingdom, as well.

“[There are] serious concerns about the transparency, accountability, and judgment of current decisionmakers in Saudi Arabia,” Republican Senators Marco Rubio, Todd Young, Cory Gardner, Rand Paul, and Dean Heller, wrote in a joint letter to Trump in the aftermath of the Khashoggi assassination in October 2018. “[W]e remain concerned that the Saudi Government has refused, for many years, to consider any agreement that includes so-called ‘Gold Standard’ requirements against pursuing technologies to enrich uranium and reprocess plutonium-laden spent nuclear fuel.”

The missive called on Trump to halt the discussions about the transfer of nuclear technology to the Kingdom indefinitely. However, the meeting in February 2019 shows that the Trump Administration has not abandoned plans to approve the sale of nuclear power plants to the Saudis.

But with the new allegations about potential legal and ethical problems with the Trump Administration’s plan for transferring nuclear technology to Saudi Arabia, plus continuing concerns about the Kingdom’s interest in acquiring nuclear weapons, it looks increasingly hard to see how Congress would allow any American deal to go ahead unchallenged, at least in the near term.

All told, there is significant evidence that Saudi Arabia wants to at least lay the groundwork for a nuclear weapons arsenal and, if it becomes more obvious that this is the case, other countries in the region might follow suit. This could include Saudi partners, especially the UAE and Egypt, as well as opponents beyond Iran, such as Qatar.

A nuclear arms race in the Middle East would turn an already perilous region into one that could single-handedly have the power to end the world as we know it.

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